Impermanence and the Need for Social Change

by Daishin McCabe

(The first part of this article is here.)

jizo colorImpermanence is the second doorway to Zen practice. Impermanence includes biological change. We get old, we get sick, we die. It includes relational changes between spouses, between parents and children, between teachers and students, between friends. Impermanence is not necessarily a bad thing. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s very positive. Accepting the impermanence of things is a way to accept that we ourselves are capable of change, growth, and learning something new every day of our life. It means we will not stay stuck in a limiting worldview, in a limiting relationship, or in a limiting health condition. It means that we are not defined by the labels we put on ourselves, or that others put on us.

Much of what Buddha said regarding impermanence focused on biological and relational changes. The Five Remembrances are such a teaching:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape old age.
I am of the nature to be sick. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
Everyone and everything that I love is of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions (karma) are my only true belongings. There is no way to escape the consequences of my actions.

Buddha spent less time addressing social injustices and the need for social change, though he did not ignore this need. In Indian society during the Buddha’s time (and today) there was the caste system that dictated your station in life based on what family you were born into. Buddha dismissed this system by becoming a renunciant. He was born into the Warrior caste and was expected to become the leader of his small north Indian Kingdom. By renouncing his birth right, he was addressing the injustice of having to remain in the caste that you are born into. In other words, Buddha recognized the limitations and injustices of the caste system.

Buddha also allowed members of the Untouchable caste to ordain as monks. While he addressed social injustice in this way, he discouraged monks and nuns from getting involved in politics, and to this day, unless you are a part of what has been called “Engaged Buddhism” many monks and nuns, as well as lay people, shy away from taking positions on the political spectrum.

While many Buddhists do engage in politics, this stance – staying away from politics – among contemporary Euro-American Buddhists poses a problem for fully understanding the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence. Politics is one vehicle with which society changes. The policies of our government reflect the heart of the people. If unjust policies remain in place – stagnating much needed cultural change, then Buddhists need to be a part of the conversations that create both just social policies and changes in the hearts of individuals. Both need to happen together – the political change and the change of heart. Conversations that are important to have in particular are those about race and climate change.

I admit that these conversations are exceedingly uncomfortable and that I myself feel I need to engage in them more. There are days where I feel I’m just not doing enough. As a white American who practices Buddhism I feel I have a special responsibility to speak up about the present political climate. As I engage in conversations with other white Buddhists, I’ve noticed a trend in predicting outcomes of events, such as what the results will be of a Trump presidency. However, surprise is often evoked in Buddhist circles when heart-felt outrage is spoken at what we are seeing in terms of the rhetoric and policies coming out of the White House. Where is the place for outrage among white Buddhist practitioners? Are we to remain in a fake calm while our black and brown brothers and sisters continue to suffer discrimination – century after century? And what does this all have to do with impermanence anyway?

Impermanence has an ethical component to it. When a thing that needs to change remains the same for months, years, decades or even several hundred years, then that is where suffering is. This is one definition of suffering. When we do not allow something to change, we all suffer. An example of something that remains permanent for way too long is nuclear waste. It’s going to be around for hundreds of thousands of years. Any human-made material that stays around that long is extremely unstable and unsafe. It poses problems for humans and life on Earth for the next several thousand generations.

Impermanence, on the other hand, is stable. Things that change demonstrate stability. Change happens because there is enough love and trust to let go of a previous existence and enter into an unknown territory and way of being.

In the United States, right now we are stuck politically and socially in a racist worldview – a worldview that allows the gap between the wealthy and the poor to widen, that pits poor whites against blacks, that gives priority to green paperbacks over the health of humans and at the expense of the ecosystems. Opportunities for change have come and gone (and will continue to come), and as a society we continue to embrace or at the very least to accept our racist heritage as the status quo.

Being white Buddhists doesn’t get us off the hook for looking at how we are allowing the status quo to continue unchecked. Predictions of impermanence don’t motivate anyone to make change. In fact, they can do the reverse. We can assume that impermanence is inevitable, as though that impermanence is somehow separate from our own actions, and continue on with business as usual – go to the Dharma center and find our little high, feel good, have nice conversations, but not talk about anything that is socially or politically charged out of fear of not demonstrating calm or patience.

What we white Buddhists need to do is to learn to speak passionately and unreservedly about what we believe in and what we want our society to look like. We need to learn from the mono-theistic religions how to speak up about social injustices. We need to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations with people who disagree with us, and we need to be willing to reach out to communities and people of color to learn from them and to listen to their struggles.

How are we going to uproot racism in our self? Just sitting is not enough. Just meditating on impermanence is not enough. We need to include in our meditation an honest look at how we profit from racism in our lives. To be white in America today is to profit from the suffering of people of color. How can a white Buddhist who makes the vow to free all beings afford to ignore the suffering that we inflict on people of color just because of our skin? If we are really serious about ending suffering, then we need to include the ways that we ourselves perpetuate suffering. This means that as white Buddhists we need to speak about race relations in our sanghas.

One of my own wake-up calls around race took place on my first visit to Haiti in 2013. My partner works in Haiti and I was visiting her for a 10-day trip. During the middle of that 10-days I found myself sitting in the back of a pick-up truck with 16 other Haitians, and surrounded beyond that truck by a sea of black people. I realized in that moment – though I thought myself unprejudiced – how much fear about black people remained locked in my own heart. I realized that the gestures of black people that I had interpreted back in the U.S. as violent, sneaky, angry, and dangerous had little basis in truth. I realized that in order for a black person to be successful in the United States they have to suppress their own cultural norms – facial gestures, postures, and intonations – among white people.

How do we take it all in? How do we take in the present political climate that spews hate? How do we take in police brutality towards people of color? How do we take in the lack of gun control? How do we take in policies that ignore the rages of the Earth? “How do we take it all in?” was a question asked of me by a Buddhist practitioner who is a person of color.

I don’t have the answer to this koan, though speaking and writing about it seems to me to be a start. I think this question is a good place for white Buddhists to begin dialogue. I believe that the answers to this koan needs to be uncovered in each of our hearts, and in our conversations within our sanghas. It’s a koan that needs to be pondered over both alone and together. I invite my readers, if you have not already, to begin thinking about this koan: How do we take it all in?

Daishin McCabe

daishin good headshot

Daishin Eric McCabe met his teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, in 1994 at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania while studying religion and biology.  He began his 15-year residency and mentorship with her at Mount Equity Zendo in 1998 and completed zuise in 2009.  He is a member of the board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, a member of the Association of Soto Zen Buddhists and has recently completed a one-year Clinical Pastoral Education training program.  In August of 2014 he moved to Ames, Iowa with his wife, Jisho Sara Siebert.  Visit his website here.